A Touch of Grey Around the Tentacles (Empress of Mars)
|With Alpha Centauri only appearing on a screen, the “looking like a giant penis” needs of this episode had to be filled elsewhere.|
It’s June 10th, 2017. Despacito? Despacito. Ariana Grande makes it up to number two, while Niall Horan, French Montana, and Ed Sheeran also chart, with the latter having his last week in the top ten following the great Sheeraning. In news, Montenegro joins NATO, a Saudi Arabian-led blockade of Qatar begins, and James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the big news is the general election, which ends with a hung parliament after unexpectedly large gains for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, resulting in Theresa May forming a confidence and supply agreement with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party that gives her an incredibly narrow majority that would require near unanimous support from within her own party for any major legislation such as, say, a Brexit agreement.
Speaking of Brexit, on television we have Empress of Mars. This is a story that, by all rights, should be easy to dislike. It’s Gatiss doing pure and unadulterated fanwank, without any of the wider concerns that allowed things like The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End or Hell Bent to justify their excesses. Its very existence is not a sign of a healthy program. On a very basic level, functional TV programs do not resolve storylines in ways that depend on the audience recognizing the forty-three year old supporting character who’s making a cameo for the final scenes to make any sense. This absolutely and unequivocally should be a hot, steaming mess. So why is it so utterly delightful?
Part of it is that Empress of Mars provides the natural culmination for the project we’ve been identifying as “late Gatiss.” Much of Gatiss’s late style has emerged from what seems like a greater sense of comfort with his own approach. His early work often seemed to struggle at fitting what he does to the strictures of the modern series, particularly the themes and approaches established by Russell T Davies, which are ultimately where The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, and Night Terrors all trip up. But starting with his Series Seven contributions, Gatiss seems to have resolved to stop trying to tailor what he does to larger expectations of what modern Doctor Who is like and to instead just write Gatiss episodes. The results have been consistently charming and, with Robot of Sherwood and Sleep No More, have done non-trivial amounts to expand the concept of what a Gatiss episode can be. But with Empress of Mars, this hard-earned “let Gatiss be Gatiss” ethos is taken to its endpoint and we finally get to appreciate how good an idea it was in the first place.
It’s notable that Gatiss required some work to get to that point with the episode. His first instinct, correctly squashed, was to try to pen a sequel to Sleep No More given that story’s ambiguity-laden resolution. It is unsurprising that this did not quite work, as the downer ending was central to that story and revisiting it could only diminish the idea. In any case, aware that he was likely to find himself effectively departing with Moffat, or at the very least that he was not going to have the same “trusted lieutenant” status under Chibnall, Gatiss decided to go for the more self-indulgent option, which for him meant Ice Warriors. His first idea, nicknamed Brexit of Peladon, was at once clearly brilliant and clearly not workable in 45 minutes that would have to reintroduce the basic idea of Peladon in order to deliver the payoff. And so he eventually settled on “Victorians on Mars wake up the Ice Warrior queen.”
It’s worth remarking on the kind of elegant simplicity of this premise. The Victorians in space angle has decent enough precedent between H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (previously adapted to TV by Gatiss, who also starred) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series, which, while it starred an American Civil War veteran, is still clearly in the general realm of iconography. More to the point, the rise of steampunk as a subgenre made the Victorian astronaut angle positively savvy. Combining this with Doctor Who’s pre-existing race of morally variable Martian lizard people to do a story in which the British Empire invades Mars is smart, subtle, and yet still fundamentally lends itself to a goofy romp.
Which, make no mistake, is absolutely what Empress of Mars is. Way back in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood essay I suggested that a story that gave in and tried the commonly offered “go back and do it like the classic series would” suggestion was inevitable and had to be attempted just so that it could fail and dissuade people from doing it. But with Empress of Mars, Gatiss offers the refutation of this line of thought. More than any story since, actually, The Unquiet Dead, Empress of Mars is attempting to present 1970s Doctor Who with the bare minimum of updates required for transmission in the twenty-first century. Where The Unquiet Dead was an ostentatious Hinchcliffe homage, however, Empress of Mars is something altogether weirder: a remake of Pertwee’s space-based stories.
These are a genuinely odd legacy to embrace, because they exist right on the threshold of something that’s actually meaningful to talk about. Out of Pertwee’s twenty-four stories, only eight—Colony in Space, The Curse of Peladon, The Mutants, Carnival of Monsters, Frontier in Space, Planet of the Daleks, Death to the Daleks, and The Monster of Peladon—are actually straightforward “the TARDIS lands somewhere and a thing happens” stories. Of these, two are Terry Nation stories and so belong to their own unfortunately timeless period, while a third is simply a remake of another one. This leaves two Malcolm Hulke stories, a Baker and Martin carnival, a Robert Holmes story that spends half its time on pseudo-Earth (Jo notably doesn’t emerge from the Miniscope at all until the final scenes), and The Curse of Peladon, the story that Empress of Mars most directly references. There’s enough here to have a sense of tone and style, especially when you add back things like The Time Monster, The Three Doctors, and Planet of the Spiders that have substantial off-world segments. (Or at least a bit in Atlantis.) But there’s nowhere near enough for it to feel like one of the defining anchors of what Doctor Who is, especially when they’re abutted with the far more straightforwardly distinctive and era-defining UNIT stories.
And yet it’s an era I am inordinately fond of. The five stories that serve as the core texts are among my favorites of the era, and provide a clear anchor for the weirder, more emphatically glam Pertwee era that is the one I actually love as opposed to the show about lovable military goofballs defending the Earth that fandom (including, let’s be honest, Gatiss) seems to think the era is actually best represented by. And so as a thing from the past to faithfully recapture it’s at once compelling and unexpected.
It’s also, notably, well-suited to the format. The Pertwee era was still rooted in the six-parter—half of its stories were six-parters. Indeed, it was the last real pomp of the structure—Tom Baker had five more plus Shada, and Colin Baker had The Two Doctors, but the format was de-emphasized after Pertwee. But up until Pertwee, six parters and longer had been the norm for the series. This was largely a factor of budgets and a desire to get six weeks of television out of a given set of costumes and sets, but it was also a structure that was suited to the conceptual explorations of space of the Hartnell era. It started to flag in the Troughton era, especially during Season Five’s downright harrowing parade of six-part bases under siege, but it’s in the Pertwee era that the stories largely refocused on a sense of spectacle. It isn’t that there weren’t interesting ideas, but the stories became less about exploring those ideas than about mining them for excuses to use CSO. And thus six-parts was, more often than not, excruciatingly baggy.
But the forty-five minute structure has the opposite problem, which has proven to be one of the biggest problems facing Series Ten. In an era where it seems like Doctor Who needs to pivot towards exploring ideas, its format is poorly suited to it. And while Gatiss isn’t addressing that challenge at all, he’s at least being extremely savvy in going back to a spectacle-heavy format that was too often decompressed and reviving it in a spectacle-friendly structure that thrives on acceleration.
The result is a campy romp through a bunch of cave sets in which villains rant gloriously, secondary characters slot cleanly into the sympathetic ones and the bad ones, and everything advances with a jaunty clip. The story is simple and stripped down to its set pieces, with clear shifts in the balance of power that move the plot along, but that leave enough space for moments to feel like they can breathe. It’s all competently done fun, and while Gatiss’s politics are far from the best on the series (the anecdote of him having to be coaxed into accepting a black soldier because realism is deeply cringeworthy, and, though it’s beyond the scope of this episode, his transphobia is almost as bad as Roberts’s) this ends up being pretty resolutely anti-empire in a deeply satisfying way. And the fact that it ends with the Ice Warriors making their initial steps towards a longstanding EU analogue is, while obscure to anyone who hasn’t watched The Curse of Peladon, a good call, especially in the context of post-Brexit Doctor Who’s conspicuous general case cowardice in tackling the matter.
So what are we to make of Gatiss in light of this? He remains modern Doctor Who’s great classicist—a writer who, in all of his stories, is fundamentally concerned with things Doctor Who used to do and how to get it to do them again. The limitations of this are searingly obvious: Gatiss is utterly and fundamentally incapable of moving Doctor Who forward. And this is on top of some of his other weaknesses such as a comparatively flaccid grasp of character. But with all the unsettling possibilities of him as a future showrunner finally removed, we can finally appreciate him as he turns out to have always been: a supporting player.
It is in this context that his virtues most obviously announce themselves. He is not merely a classicist, but a delightfully odd classicist—one whose memory of the program is accurate but idiosyncratic in its focuses. The result is that even when he goes for the most bog standard traditionalism imaginable, there’s a bracing freshness to it. This is perhaps most clear in his previous Ice Warriors story, where he took the most routinely resurrected trad subgenre, the base under siege, and turned it inside out in a way that’s intensely related to the genre’s original purpose, setting it in the literal Cold War and having it be the Russians whose base is under siege. But this spark is consistent, especially in his post-Series 6 work. And the truth is that Doctor Who would be lesser without someone who could do this. Someone who can cogently speak to the past and show new perspectives on it is absolutely a virtue for the show, whether or not it results in the most exciting episodes of the year. By 2017 it’d been a long time since the “ugh the Gatiss episode” grimace that fandom greeted his every script with was remotely warranted, not because his output since then had always been good, but because it had at least always been interesting.
For proof just look at Peter Capaldi who, one week after the most phoned in performance of his tenure, appears to be having the time of his life with a script that doesn’t actually give him much interesting to do, but that gives him a truly charming landscape against which to do it. Perhaps this requires a Doctor Who fan in the lead—certainly it’s true that Pearl Mackie isn’t having anywhere near as much fun (a more or less straight-up reversal of last week then). But with this combination—a show run by middle aged Scottish fans with genuine ambition—Gatiss’s style is a perfect complimenting note. And so, improbably given the lows his reputation has hit, including, I’ll freely admit, in this project, he exits our story on a high. He’s not an era-defining titan, but he was never going to be. But he is a major secondary figure—one of those writers like Hulke, Baker and Martin, or David Fisher who add much of the texture to eras that are characterized at large by other figures. Or, to make the more interesting comparison, like Moffat; just as he provided a vital complementary voice in all of Russell T Davies’s seasons, so did Gatiss ultimately do so for Moffat’s. He’s not why this was a golden era. But all the same, a little bit of the shine is clearly his.
June 17, 2019 @ 5:42 pm
You know, it’s your book and all, but a suggestion: having watched Gatiss’s “First Men on the Moon”, I think it would be just about right for a ‘Pop Between Realities’ bonus article. It’s certainly as much like a Gatiss “Who” episode as a Steven Moffat “Sherlock” episode is like a Steven Moffat “Who” episode.
June 17, 2019 @ 5:48 pm
“his transphobia is almost as bad as Roberts’s”
Oh yeah, been waiting for you to say something about that bit of drama. From what I’ve seen of it, it would appear Roberts, whilst pretty egregiously wrong about the whole trans issue, is at least honorably wrong in that he appears to think the whole phenomenon is just a symptom of restrictive gender roles under the patriarchy. It’s lunacy but not bigotry.
Don’t know anything about Gatiss, though. (I’m not usually very clued-in about behind-the-scenes turmoil.) What’s up with that?
June 17, 2019 @ 8:17 pm
Association with the other writers on the League of Gentlemen. See also, Matt Lucas (Gatiss was script editor on Little Britain).
June 17, 2019 @ 8:29 pm
More to the point, Gatiss has in recent memory doubled down on the transphobic jokes in League of Gentlemen, updating them to be transphobic for the present day instead of being dated transphobia and insisting that there’s nothing wrong with doing so. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/12/20/league-of-gentlemen-defends-transphobia-accusations-saying-there-is-room-to-have-a-laugh/
He’s also prone to the “we shouldn’t worry about pronouns because ISIS” argument.
As for Roberts, he’s gone full Glinner lately and can really go fuck himself.
June 18, 2019 @ 1:12 am
I didn’t know what Glinner meant, so I looked it up and was amused to be prominently offered Graham Linehan’s Wikipedia page. Which fits perfectly, given Glinner Linehan’s own transphobic proclivities.
June 18, 2019 @ 7:55 am
Yeah, Glinner is Linehan’s twitter handle.
June 19, 2019 @ 6:12 am
Now it finally sinks in.
Thanks for explaining it so kindly to someone who deserved to be laughed at.
June 19, 2019 @ 7:58 am
No worries :). I admit I chuckled a little at your comment, but I think it indicates a good life-Twitter balance on your part.
June 19, 2019 @ 12:33 pm
My Life:Twitter balance looks like this:
Clearly this leads to risible levels of ignorance about certain things.
On the bright side, Father Ted was only tarnished for me relatively recently.
June 18, 2019 @ 9:44 am
“It’s lunacy but not bigotry”.
At the end of the day, does it really matter? In an academic discussion about the types of transphobia, maybe. But when it comes to the damage his behaviour causes, his specific beliefs don’t change the fact that he’s actively hurting people.
June 18, 2019 @ 10:07 am
Plus his beliefs make him pretty intolerant of trans people and completely dismissive of their lived experience in favour of his view on the topic, meaning that I’m pretty sure his stance is a text book case of bigotry in action.
June 18, 2019 @ 3:03 pm
You remember last week when I warned you about coming off as a shit-stirring troll?
Yeah. Several comments deleted. Don’t defend Gareth Roberts’s opinions on trans people on my blog.
June 18, 2019 @ 3:51 pm
I’m not going to argue, because, your blog. But [argument deleted by admins]
June 18, 2019 @ 6:06 pm
…hey! As I said if you don’t want the earlier comments on your blog, fine. But your rationale gives the impression that I was agreeing with Roberts, which couldn’t be further from the truth, and I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. You may disagree with what I was saying, but there is I think a pretty big difference between it and “defending his arguments”.
June 18, 2019 @ 6:29 pm
Dude just stop digging
June 17, 2019 @ 9:38 pm
One thing that always niggled me about this episode was that the Doctor never asked Friday the Ice Warrior what his real name was.
June 17, 2019 @ 9:57 pm
Yeah, that’s just – would it have been so hard even to let the audience know? Iraxxa talks to him enough to address him by name.
June 18, 2019 @ 8:30 am
The Doctor did ask Friday that question (although Friday declines to answer), but unfortunately the scene was cut from the broadcast episode. It’s on the S10 box set deleted scenes extra though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xF3wiM2ERIw
June 18, 2019 @ 1:23 pm
I like how Bill keeps referencing random movies because clearly someone actually did write down on a note somewhere “she likes sci-fi”. [I find this specifically contrasts Martha, whom Gareth Roberts made a fan of stuff for the duration of Shakespeare Code and no one else writing for television noticed but many, many people people writing elsewhere did.]
June 18, 2019 @ 1:36 pm
Yeah, that’s one of Bill’s more promising (and completely wasted) character traits.
June 18, 2019 @ 6:03 pm
I wonder if Bill was originally written as the return of the possibly-companion from “Last Christmas”, and then they failed to get the actress back.
June 21, 2019 @ 10:25 am
Steven Moffat said he wanted to cast a black actress from the start. He could be exaggerating, and maybe at some point it was to be Shona, but taking him at face value this suggests that it wasn’t.
June 21, 2019 @ 2:51 pm
IIRC they did consider bringing Shona back at one point, though?
June 22, 2019 @ 10:02 am
“From the start” could mean a lot of things. It would certainly fit all the evidence to imagine that the first plan was to bring back Shona, then they couldn’t, and as soon as it became clear that a new companion would have to be created from scratch Moffat decided she’d be black.
June 18, 2019 @ 1:55 pm
This essay made me realize that I can forgive many flaws as long as a story is in any way interesting. And, subsequently, that I am unable to empathize with people who prefer boring, but competently done stories to interesting disasters. I guess it’s part of the reason why I love EP so much.
I was surprised by how much I liked this episode while watching it. It’s a fun romp with some great ideas and visuals. It’s just a shame that it breaks Nardole’s character by making him let Missy out of the vault. He was always more of a plot device than a character, but here it was just blatant. It would’ve made so much more sense to have Missy escape the vault herself, either in this episode or the previous one…
I liked how the Ice Warrior queen connected with Bill because they were both female. It contrasted nicely with all the soldiery stuff – feminity is humanizing here, which makes the (male) soldiers seem monstrous in comparison. And then the picture is futher complicated by having the queen be ruthless and prone to aggression because she’s an imperial ruler – which overrides her better side.
As for that ending with Alpha Centauri, I certainly noticed that it was strange and I didn’t really get what it meant, but I just assumed it was something from the classic series that would appear in the season finale – that this short scene was meant to function as foreshadowing. I was wrong, but it made the scene work for me.
June 18, 2019 @ 10:56 pm
Moffat is my favourite era of DW. Capaldi is my Doctor, and my favourite season is 8. Curiously, Moffat Who is often considered too “up its own ass”, getting bogged down in the continuity and the detail of Doctor Who lore. You would think that I would like that.
But no. I usually completely miss any reference to Classic Who, which I never watched, expect some very few episodes. So Empress of Mars made very very little sense to me.
But Moffat Who is still my favourite era. Just thought I would point out that not all Moffat fans are in it just for the mythos exploration.
June 19, 2019 @ 9:45 pm
People say that about Moffat a lot and it’s not really fair.
There’s one or two Moffat-era stories which are measurably enhanced by a familiarity with the older series (Name of the Doctor, Day of the Doctor, Into the Dalek and Listen spring to mind), but mostly the classic who references are just easter eggs. Where Moffat gets ‘bogged down’ in continuity and lore, it’s usually stuff that was already established or re-introduced from 2005 onward.
(Even Empress of Mars isn’t that hard to follow if you keep Cold War in mind, imo. But that wasn’t one of the more memorable stories so i don’t blame you.)
‘Up its own ass’ often seems to mean self-important and meta-referential, rather than lore-focused, anyway. Which Moffat Who often is, but if the alternative is unambitious throw-away episodes, i know which i find more entertaining.
June 19, 2019 @ 1:36 am
One of the episodes that ‘missed’ for me this series. Can’t really put my finger on it, but apart from the fanwank ending, I forget this episode every time I try to recall stories from series 10, and even then the Alpha Centauri chuckle was only that, a very brief chuckle. I do remember being a little disappointed that the gender politics of the Ice Warriors seemed very much rooted in the current gender politics of twentieth & twenty-first-century Earth. I was really hoping that their civilisation would be based on military rank/merit and that gender would be a non-issue.
Thanks for the review/examination, as always.